ASU’s Strong muscles his way into best-receiver conversation
TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s Thursday at Sun Devil Stadium, where Arizona State just finished its last practice of the week. Jaelen Strong delays his usual media duties to take care of a photo shoot with FOX Sports 1, which was gathering visuals for that week’s broadcast of ASU’s game against Utah.
For about 10 minutes Strong follows orders. Helmet on, helmet off. Ball tucked in, ball held out, palmed by a huge hand typically seen above a defensive back’s head, spearing a pass the average receiver doesn’t catch.
Once the session ends, Strong starts toward the locker room. Only one reporter has waited him out. After some reluctance, Strong stops, moving into the shade of Tillman Tunnel to answer questions. He knows this is part of the deal when you’re one of college football’s top receivers.
Immediately, he exudes confidence about that very fact, managing to sound as genuine as he does cocky.
"I think I’m the best receiver in college football," Strong says. "I should be compared to the top receivers. That’s how I feel."
Strong has a case.
Now a junior, he has developed into one of college football’s elite receivers and a nearly undefendable difference maker for No. 9 ASU.
"He’s really a special player, and he’s just begun," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "He’s just begun to develop. He’s got a big, huge upside."
When Strong arrived at ASU after a season at Pierce College in Los Angeles, he was raw. At 6-feet-3 and 200 pounds, he had the body to be a Division I receiver and immeasurable natural ability, but he had a lot of adjusting to do to be an effective receiver in the Pac-12.
"It was just experience," ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said. "The speed of the game, he needed to adjust there. He also needed to adjust to how physical it is here and how much you have to prepare."
Strong improved throughout the 2013 season, and his 1,122 yards on 75 catches were enough to land him a spot on the All-Pac-12 second team, but he did it mostly on raw talent. His real transformation happened in the offseason.
Strong, who could not do a single bench press rep of 225 pounds when he came to ASU, gained about 15 pounds of muscle. That has enabled him to be a more physically dominant receiver. He also increased his stamina and endurance, which has helped him play faster.
"I played 93 plays one game and I didn’t even notice it," Strong said.
Along the way, Strong also has improved his route running, his versatility — he now can line up all over the field — and his practice habits. Other elements of his game seem to always have been there — catching, for example.
"I can’t remember a time I didn’t know how to catch," Strong said. "That’s just all natural ability."
Put it all together and it’s easy to see why Strong is garnering national attention as a likely high draft pick next year should he decide to forgo his senior season and jump to the NFL.
But is Strong the best wide receiver in college football?
"He’s right there in my opinion," former USC wide receiver and current Pac-12 Networks analyst Curtis Conway said. "If I had to put him in a category with all the top wide receivers in college football, Jaelen Strong is right now in my top five.
"He’s definitely No. 1 in the Pac-12."
The others Conway, who played 12 seasons in the NFL, mentions: Alabama’s Amari Cooper, West Virginia’s Kevin White and Michigan State’s Tony Lippett. Cooper ranks second nationally in receiving yards (1,132), and White is third (1,075).
Conway said he got to meet with Strong a bit during ASU’s fall camp and that Strong has long been one of his favorite receivers — even after Strong caught the Hail Mary that lifted ASU over USC, Conway’s alma mater, last month.
What makes Strong so special, Conway said, is his strength.
"No. 1 is just his strength, being able to go up and catch the ball," Conway said. "I mean, his body has been an issue for opposing corners when they play him. … When he came on the scene last season at the end of that Stanford game, he didn’t look back. He kind of just grew into being a dominant receiver in college football."
Strong isn’t a burner, but Conway says being a speedy receiver can be overrated. What’s more impressive to Conway is Strong’s efficiency and big-play ability.
"He’s a go-to guy," Conway said. "That’s more impressive now than anything. You know they’re going to Jaelen Strong, and you still can’t stop him."
There are plenty of others who agree.
FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt, who played quarterback at Colorado, wouldn’t go as far as to say Strong is No. 1, but he’s in the conversation with Alabama’s Cooper, USC’s Nelson Agholor and "maybe" West Virginia’s White.
"If I were drafting a wide receiver from college football today, he would probably be my No. 3 or No. 4 pick," Klatt said. "He’s absolutely as good as anyone in the country."
Klatt does award Strong one superlative.
"I do believe that he’s as undervalued a wide receiver as there is in the country for a couple reasons," he said.
The first reason, Klatt says, is Strong’s junior-college background. With exceptions like Cam Newton, most junior college players need time to get on the radar. The second reason relates to ASU’s frequent late starts. With high temperatures early in the season and the late-night television slots to fill, ASU regularly kicks off late at night, leaving much of the country unexposed to players on the West Coast.
But Strong is getting noticed regardless. His junior college days, a result of subpar academics at West Philadelphia Catholic Prep, seem a distant memory, and this weekend Strong and ASU will be featured prominently across the country when they face No. 10 Notre Dame in a midday national TV game.
Klatt says Strong’s ability as a receiver starts with his body.
"He has what you can’t coach, which is strength and size," Klatt said. "That’s just an inherent advantage, and then when you couple that with the fact he’s not just a big body — he’s fluid, he runs decent routes and he catches the ball well — he becomes incredibly difficult to defend."
Klatt recalls his days at Colorado to illustrate how valuable a receiver like Strong can be to a quarterback. His sophomore season, Klatt had similar tall and physical targets in D.J. Hackett and Derek McCoy. He didn’t realize just how good he had it until both were gone the next season.
"The margin for error for a quarterback goes way up when you have a wide receiver with that type of catch radius, with that type of physical advantage over the other players on the field, and it can make a quarterback look very good," he said.
Count Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly among those Strong has impressed, too. He saw Strong up close when ASU and Notre Dame played in Dallas last season. Strong had eight receptions for 136 yards and a touchdown in that game, which ASU lost 37-34.
This week, Kelly compared Strong to former Notre Dame and current Arizona Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd.
"As good as any wide receiver in the country," Kelly said.
As much as analysts, coaches and draft scouts praise Strong, his talent hasn’t quite shown up in the numbers. He ranks 14th in the nation with 821 yards on 57 catches and is 13th in receiving yards per game (102.6). He doesn’t even crack the top two spots within the Pac-12.
Part of that is ASU’s sputtering offense, which has averaged 20.7 points the past three games, but also a factor is the increased coverage Strong has commanded this season.
"There’s a lot more bracket coverage, a lot of Cover-2, a lot of cloud coverage over the top of me," Strong said. "And that’s fine. We’ve got great receivers. If you double me, somebody’s open."
Strong welcomes the additional coverage as a challenge, but he still relishes a one-on-one matchup and the opportunity to catch one of his trademark back-shoulder fades.
He has also embraced a bigger leadership role now that he has established himself as a veteran.
"If he goes slow, the other guys go slow," Alexander said. "If he shows a lot of energy as a guy we really try to get the ball to, then the other guys are going to share that energy and prepare just as hard and come out and try to meet that standard that he sets."
Just don’t expect any false modesty from Strong. His "best-receiver-in-college-football" attitude gives him an edge.
"He’s supposed to say that," Conway says. "I think anyone competing in anything should feel like they’re the best, especially if they’re probably one of the top five.
"Again, I think he’s one of top five in the country, and he thinks he’s the best. You can move that around on any given day, and any of those guys could be No. 1. I just think he needs to continue the way he’s playing."